Biosphere 2 Reopens for Climate Study

Biosphere 2, a facility dedicated to the research and understanding of global scientific issues, is reopening. A bunch of scientists won't live in it this time. Instead the new owners of the Biosphere are leasing the 3.5-acre glass building to the University of Arizona, which plans to use the space to study climate and water.

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Some people may be old enough to remember Biosphere 2, that big glass terrarium in the desert outside Tuscan, Arizona. People lived and work there as part of a giant science experiment that largely failed.

But the Biosphere has a new order and a new life as NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS: If you're one of those people who still think Biosphere 2 is where people in "Star Trek" uniforms seal themselves in to stimulator space colony, Jane Poynter says get over it.

Ms. JANE POYNTER (President, Paragon Space Development Corporation): Because when I talked to people 10 years ago, I would have heard, ooh, that weird place, that place out in the desert there, that failed thing. And now I don't hear that anymore.

ROBBINS: Poynter was one of those uniformed Biospherians. She now co-owns an aerospace company.

Ms. POYNTER: I think probably the perception has already changed.

ROBBINS: Good thing, since the original human experiment ended with not enough oxygen to sustain the bickering crew inside.

The Biosphere's second incarnation was at the campus of Columbia University, which ran climate experiment inside and built a housing complex for students outside. Then Columbia left, so the Biosphere's owner, Texas billionaire Ed Bass put it and 1,600-acres around it up for sale.

After two years on the market, Chris Banan(ph) and his partners recently bought the property. They plan to develop the land from condos to luxury homes. Buyers will get spectacular views of the Santa Catalina Mountains. But Banan says they'll also have to enjoy a view of the Biosphere because it's staying.

Mr. CHRIS BANAN (Biosphere 2): Well, I think people are seeing a three and a half acre glass building. If you're buying a lot and you look in your backyard, you know, you gotta buy into that.

ROBBINS: Banan, who once ran the Biosphere, agreed to lease it to the University of Arizona. The university, based in Tucson, will use it to study climate and water.

Mr. Peter Track(ph) (Scientist): Good morning and welcome to the experimental biome, as this place is now called.

ROBBINS: For instance, scientist like Peter Track will build a huge mountain slope inside the Biosphere, bigger than anything possible in a lab and more controllable than nature. They'll look at how plants on the slope can change water runoff and soil chemistry. Ecology and evolutionary biology professor Travis Hucksman(ph) explain.

Professor TRAVIS HUCKSMAN (University of Arizona): We can't do that in with our natural observations in the real world. We can't do that at a small scale because we can't get the biology to behave the way we want it to. But at this particular medium scale, we have the ability to do it.

ROBBINS: The University also plans to start an environmental think tank just outside and it will continue the public tours that have been popular since the beginning.

With its artificial ocean, jungle and savannah, the Biosphere costs $1.4 million a year to operate, but the university of Arizona is getting a sweet deal. Ed Bass, the original owner, says he'll donate 30 million over the next 10 years. So Travis Hacksman told the crowd of guests he is optimistic.

Prof. HACKSMAN: We hope this place is a place where we can tackle the grand challenges that threatened our way of life, these questions of water and climate change, and that it's a place where you can see the way that science is done.

(Soundbite of applause)

ROBBINS: The initial university lease is for three years; no guarantees after that. So, former Biospherian Jane Poynter is a bit more cautious.

Ms. POYNTER: Oh, well, my hope is that, you know, that all of these grand dreams you were hearing of here today actually materialize.

ROBBINS: The land around it is about to change from an inhabited terrain to a suburb of Tucson. But the University of Arizona hopes to finally bring some stability to the Biosphere itself.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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